After having entertained numerous friends for dinner at the Chu household over the years, countless numbers have asked, ‘Franklin, why don’t you open a Chinese restaurant?’ The answer is ‘been there, done that!’
During the early 1990’s, the writing was beginning to be etched on the wall: Health care costs needed to be reigned in; they were already consuming 8% of the economy and rising. (Seem pretty tame by today’s roughly 13%) Health care reimbursement must be and needed to be revisited. The message from our national organization, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, was ‘To survive, diversify’: set up optical dispensaries in office practices, be known as experts in a more narrow aspect of eye care delivery, or if possible and able, plan on an early retirement.
As my attempt at diversification, an opportunity opened for me to be involved in the restaurant business. There was no Chinese eatery on Bainbridge Island. I thought of how supportive the folks of the island had been to my family and to my medical practice over the years and how this venture might just be a chance of my sharing my heritage and in a small way ‘a pay back to the community.’ My thoughts were that my restaurant, in addition to having the regular menu, would also offer special banquet opportunities to party groups, tables of 10-12, featuring cuisine from various regions of China. I’d instruct a few of our smart high school wait staff beforehand as to serving and naming each dish. Additionally, they were to include explanatory words and a short historic background for that entre. In this manner, the diners would not only enjoy special cuisines but also gain a little more insight into Chinese history and cooking. This was one of the main reasons I had to be an owner of a restaurant. Our eatery was named the Far East Café.
The partnership consisted of three parties, each owning 30%. The fourth person granted 10% ownership was our architect who rendered services for the planned and ongoing renovations. One of the three major owners was also the working manager. Since he, the manager, was intimately involved with the daily operations, early on we allowed him much latitude and tried to stay out of his way. But the surprise to me was how ‘possessive’ the he was. On opening day, the crowd lined along Winslow Way down to Madison Avenue! My nephew Billy and I went from Poulsbo after work and started to clear the tables voluntarily to help out. The manager was upset because he thought we were interferring. The first Friday we started karaoke and I attended to get things going but was told that the platform was for paying customers. I was informed (and not subtlely) that unless I was there as a paying diner, I should stay away from ‘my own’ establishment. This opinion was shared by the other partners as well so as to give the manager a chance. I stayed away.
Sunday around 11:00 pm I was called to the restaurant because the cooking staff was not communicating with our manager who did not speak Chinese. I arrived and discovered that the cook and his staff had the perception that their agreed compensation was ‘net’ amount and that the roughly 30% deduction was never in their agreement nor understand. They worked hard and stayed longer than intended nightly all week long and they were aware of the large crowds they served daily. They would never have agreed to the meager pay for what they did and had endured. Besides, they also wanted reimbursement for the ferry fares and more money for grocery. Unless they were paid fully, they were not coming back.
I relayed this information to the manager. Unless he was ready to be closed next week, or unless he had a plan B, he had better meet their demands. A total surprise to me was that he started pulling $20 dollar bills out of his various pockets, shirt and pants, to make up the differences the staff stipulated. This action should have been a BIG CLUE for us ‘money investors’ that something was rotten in Winslow!
Perhaps due to my previous mishap in cooking rice for the church spring banquet, my restaurant knowledge and input on menu and style of cooking were summarily dismissed and discounted by my partners and especially by the manager who supposedly had more experience having once taught ‘Asian Cooking’ for the Bainbridge Parks District. Whereas, in fact, since early childhood I’ve always helped my Mom in the kitchen and I worked in my uncles’ restaurant in Springfield, OH from high school through my college years. Mom and I had always made it a habit of dissecting ingredients of restaurant dishes and trying to duplicate and/or improve them at home.
To demonstrate my hope and dreams for the restaurant, I held a dinner party for a birthday celebration for 36 people, three tables. I talked with the cooks and arranged for them to put together a banquet for me consisted of cold cut appetizers, nine entrées, and birthday cake for dessert. The cook and I agreed on the cost of supplies as my cost, but instead, the partners and their spouses as well as the manager all of whom incidentally also were invited and attended the meal, insisted on no discount for anyone and billed me $30 per person. Nonetheless, the manager and his family daily ate all their meals there for free! Later I held a similar banquet for a meeting of my American Academy of Ophthalmologists and the Academy gladly paid $1500. Everyone had a wonderful experience.
To move rapidly onward, the ‘cooking’ of our books continued. In spite of the fact that we always had lines waiting for seats, we constantly had to monetarily subsidize the restaurant operation. (My Mom commented incredulously, ‘I’ve never seen a restaurant with customers lining up like yours lose money!’) Ultimately, we, the investing partners demanded a formal audit of the manager’s bookkeeping. Mysteriously on that appointed day a fire broke out in the manager’s back office and all the records as well as part of the restaurant burned.
The insurance company agreed to pay for the fire damage and renovation. We could accept the reimbursement, or we could initiate an investigation of arson on our own dime. The city officials would not pursue the case. We chose the easy route and took the insurance money to rebuild and fired the manager. (I have lingering regrets regarding this decision.)
After reconstruction and a restart, my friend Mr. Sun LuYe, who owned the China First restaurant chain of 7 establishments in Seattle, offered to help me by providing our restaurant an entire kitchen staff and we were to provide the front personnel. He consented that after all expenses were paid and only then if there were profits remaining, we would split that 50/50. I presented this proposal but received little attention. The other two partners already had someone whom they knew in mind to take over as manager, a Caucasian, running our Chinese restaurant! There was little communication between the front desk and the kitchen. With rapid changes in medical reimbursement, I was too busy keeping my practice solvent to give too much attention to this my side business. The restaurant did not succeed, in fact it failed much costly. Finally, in 1994, I made the deal to sell it at a loss to a Mexican-American of the family of the Azteca restaurant chain. Mr. Louis Robles named his place Isla Bonita which exists across from Town and Country even today.
p.s. Lani and San Tran with their nine children of southeast Asia immigrated as a family to the USA and settled on Bainbridgde Island, being sponsored by local church groups during the early 1990’s. While the children attended school, the Tran’s used to wash vegetables at our restaurant. Although the Far East Cafe failed misersably, the Tran’s opened Sawatdy, (meaning Welcome,) in 1992 and continued their venture extremely successfully. They and their children now have expanded the family business to three restaurants: Sawatdy Thai Cuisine at Island Center, Sawan Thai Kitchen at Lynwood Center, and Kachai Thai Kitchen near Central Market in Poulsbo, WA. To this day, whenever I visit the Tran’s in their various kitchens, Lani and San continue to address me as “Mr. BOSS Man” each time I see them.